According to the United Nations, water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change. Considering how extreme climatic events related to water have increased exponentially across the world, these effects could not be more evident. At present,  Europe is experiencing a winter drought; China,  after witnessing the worst drought in its history last year, is battling with high temperatures again this month, and record-breaking rainfall caused deadly floods and landslides across São Paulo. The increase in the frequency and intensity of such extreme climatic events act as symptoms of the larger climate change crisis. This, along with problems such as growing population, deforestation, and increasing pollution levels, has caused a global water crisis.

Impact of the Water Crisis

The British poet W. H. Auden once noted, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” Apart from posing this glaringly obvious existential problem, it has other-wide ranging impacts as well. Currently, over 41% of the global population live in river basins which are experiencing water stress and it is projected that by 2025, more than two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water-stressed conditions. This has significant social, economic, and environmental consequences. Below are some of the key impacts of the water crisis:

  • Economic impact: The economic impact of the water crisis was articulated in an analysis by Global Risk Insights which stated, “the bottom line is that businesses need water”. Shortage of water triggers a chain reaction within communities, leading to a decline in local commerce, reduction in income, decrease in tax revenues, high healthcare costs and decreased economic growth. A World Bank report further highlights the economic implications of water problems, which states that water scarcity, worsened by the climate change crisis, could cost some regions up to 6% of their GDP. Learn more about how water crisis can impact economies in our blog “Impact of Drought in Europe & China; The Need for Better Climate Data.”

  • Impact on public health: The public health implications of the water crisis is severe, as water scarcity and lack of access to clean water leads to a range of health problems and water-borne diseases. According to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home, and about 8,29,000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hand hygiene.

  • Environmental degradation: Water crisis also leads to the degradation of aquatic ecosystems, including lakes, rivers, and wetlands. This can lead to the loss of biodiversity, as well as reduced water quality and ecological services such as water filtration, flood control, and habitat provision. According to WWF, water scarcity and pollution have led to the loss of biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems, with one-third of freshwater fish species now threatened with extinction.

  • Instigate conflicts: Climate change is a threat multiplier that increases the likelihood of conflicts due to the exacerbation of existing social and economic inequalities, disputes over access and allocation of shared water resources and the use of water as a political tool. As the global water demand is projected to exceed supply by over 40% (under current trends) by 2030, it has thus been widely postulated to cause “wars in the 21st century.” A new World Bank report in this regard also found that water scarcity, aggravated by climate change, could spark conflicts.

  • Social impact: The water crisis disproportionately affects marginalised communities, including low-income households, rural populations, women and children, worsening the already severe social injustice. In addition, it is causing climate-induced migration and displacement. In this regard, a UNICEF report reveals that about 700 million people could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030.

These impacts are expected to worsen in the coming years as a United Nations (UN) agency report has warned that over five billion people globally are expected to face water shortage by 2050.

Water Conservation: An Urgent Need

In this landscape of worsening water crisis, finding solutions to conserve and manage water resources cannot be emphasized enough. Water conservation encompasses a broad range of efforts to utilise water efficiently, including the development of policies, strategies, and activities to manage our freshwater resources sustainably, safeguard the hydrosphere, and meet present and future human needs in a sustainable manner.

At present, there are numerous initiatives that are doing commendable work in the water conservation space. One of the notable examples in this regard is the Malligavad Foundation. Founded and led by the renowned water conservationist Mr Anand Malligavad, also known as the "Lake man," the foundation has successfully restored over 24 lakes and 500 acres of lake area, and planted over 100,000 trees.

The role of monitoring in water conservation efforts

Monitoring water bodies is a crucial step in water conservation efforts as it enables us to obtain vital information that enhances our comprehension of how water resources are utilized, detect alterations in water bodies over time, identify probable issues, and take measures to avert them.

The importance of monitoring in water management is aptly captured by the popular diktat “you can't manage what you can’t measure.”

Traditionally, various methods are being used to monitor water bodies. This includes taking physical parameters, biological monitoring and chemical analysis among others. However, monitoring water conservation projects can be challenging due to various factors.

Some of the common challenges include:

  • Lack of credible data: Collecting data on water usage and changes in long-term trends in water bodies is a difficult process, especially in areas with limited resources and infrastructure. In addition, the margin for error expands when equipment malfunctions or when natural variations in the environment occur.

  • Expensive: Monitoring water quality can be very expensive and time consuming due to factors such as costs involved in high- frequency monitoring and vast geographic coverage, and the need for analysis of multiple parameters making traditional monitoring techniques of water bodies expensive.

  • Accessibility: Monitoring certain water bodies, such as those located in remote or inaccessible areas, can be challenging. Limited access can make it difficult to collect samples, deploy equipment, or conduct surveys.

  • Changing environmental conditions: Water bodies are dynamic environments that are constantly changing. Factors such as climate change, land use changes, and population growth can impact water quality and make it challenging to establish baseline conditions.

Role of satellites in water conservation

The rapid development of science and technology has made conservation efforts more effective. Satellite technology specifically has revolutionised environmental monitoring as it offers an innovative and powerful solution for monitoring, managing, and conserving water resources. Learn more about how satellites help in water conservation efforts, in our blog “Monitoring Lakes from space”.

Considering the benefits offered by satellite technology, there is a growing interest and traction in the field. Blake Schaeffer, Scientist at US EPA stated in this regard, “There is strong evidence that the use of satellites for water quality is transitioning from the early adopters to the early majority, including supporting efforts to meet the United Nations’ SDGs”.

Here are some ways in which satellite data can boost water conservation projects:

Satellite technology offers many benefits in water conservation efforts making it an essential tool for policymakers, water managers, and other stakeholders involved in water conservation efforts.

Satellite technology offers many benefits in water conservation efforts making it an essential tool for policymakers, water managers, and other stakeholders involved in water conservation efforts.

  • Monitoring and measurement: Satellite data can be used to monitor water resources and gain valuable information on the volume of water, changes in water levels, and water quality. Additionally, it also provides a wide range of water quality measures such as temperature, light attenuation, oil slicks, organic matter, chlorophyll, turbidity, and benthic habitat type. This information is crucial in driving water management decisions and strategies.

  • Establishing baseline: One of the challenges in traditional monitoring methods as discussed above, is with regard to establishing baselines. Satellite data makes up for this challenge by providing vital information on several water-related variables, such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, soil moisture, and groundwater levels, among others. By analyzing satellite data over a period of several years, researchers and conservationists can establish baseline conditions for variables for any region of the world.

  • Cost-effective: Using satellite technology for monitoring water bodies is a cost-effective method when compared to traditional methods such as in-situ monitoring, which involves collecting samples in the field and analyzing them in a laboratory, making it expensive. While the initial investment in satellite-based monitoring can be high, the long-term costs can be lower than traditional monitoring methods. Satellite data can be accessed and analyzed remotely, reducing the need for field visits and personnel. In addition, the cost of launching and operating satellites has decreased over time, making satellite-based monitoring more accessible and cost-effective.

  • Supporting water management decisions: Satellites can provide data on water availability, evapotranspiration, and soil moisture, which can inform water management decisions such as irrigation scheduling and drought monitoring.

  • Identifying areas of water scarcity: it helps identify areas of water scarcity by measuring changes in vegetation cover, which is a key indicator of water availability. This data can help water managers to target conservation efforts to areas where they are most needed.

  • Mapping water bodies: Satellites can help in creating elaborate maps of water bodies, detailing their size, shape, and location. These maps can be used to monitor changes in water resources and to identify areas that are at risk of drought or water scarcity.

  • Disaster-preparedness: It has the potential to offer timely alerts for water-related catastrophes like floods and landslides, which can aid in safeguarding lives and property. Furthermore, it plays a crucial role in providing essential inputs for water models that are necessary to generate dependable forecasts. The use of satellite data on soil moisture, vegetation health, precipitation, and evapotranspiration can facilitate the development of drought indices that help evaluate the intensity of droughts and anticipate future drought situations.

Speaking on the role of Earth Observation, Elly Perets, CEO of Asterra stated “The number of issues or the number of problems that can be solved with Earth Observation (EO) is enormous. There is potential in the agricultural, maritime, fishery, forestry, and ground engineering sectors… it’s endless. The gap right now in the market is between the organizations that provide the data and making sure that it goes all the way downstream to a solution or an application.”

Thus, climate intelligence firms play an important role here, as the terabytes of satellite data are of low value, unless appropriate intelligent modelling is used to carve out actionable data sets from the mountains of raw data. In this regard, climate intelligence firms with strong analytical skills and computational capacity, which can derive and consolidate actionable data sets from various satellites and disseminate them through APIs, play a crucial role.

As visualised on SpaceTime™, the images above depict the changes in the surface area of Folsom lake in the United States, depleted over four years.

As visualised on SpaceTime™, the images above depict the changes in the surface area of Folsom lake in the United States, depleted over four years.

These datasets can offer invaluable insights to stakeholders such as:

  • Conservationists: By assisting in identifying potential problems, tracking the progress of conservation initiatives and offering data valuable in promoting water conservation policies.

  • Water managers and utilities: by helping them make informed decisions on water allocation, usage, and conservation measures.

  • Project developers: by tracking progress and ensuring the long-term maintenance of projects and demonstrating its impact to stakeholders.

  • Business owners: by helping identify and manage risks related to water scarcity, quality, and pricing and planning for potential water-related disruptions to their operations and supply chains.

  • Government agencies: by helping develop policies, allocate resources, and implement regulations to ensure the sustainability of water resources.

  • Disaster management authorities: by providing valuable information to help agencies prepare for, respond to, and recover from water-related disasters.

The global water crisis is expected to worsen in the coming years. As the driving force behind our existence, taking actions to address this problem is no longer an option but a necessity. By working together and leveraging the power of satellite technology, we can make significant strikes in addressing this crisis and ensuring that future generations have access to clean and sustainable water resources.